My grandmother adored Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), and I never understood why. The first time I heard her gush about it was shortly after Napoleon Dynamite (2004) came out on DVD, and at the time my only knowledge of Fast Times came from one of those I Love The ‘80s shows on VH1 — a show that, of course, emphasized only two things about the movie: stoner icon Spicoli (Sean Penn) and the iconic nudity. I couldn’t fathom what my baba might see in a perpetually baked surfer dude, but every room in my artistic grandparents’ house had at least one of their nude paintings on the wall. So the nudity thing? That made at least some sense to me. Sort of.
I wish I could remember more of what my grandmother said about Fast Times. She loved Napoleon Dynamite more than anyone my age ever did, and she loved it in part because it reminded her of Fast Times. Something about both movies struck her as the epitome of the high school experience. I was still in middle school, so I could neither agree nor disagree. I just listened because I loved listening to her talk. (And talk. And talk.) I know now that she’s gone that I would remember more and understand more if I’d only asked her more questions … or if I’d tried to watch Fast Times in 2004 instead of 17 years later. But I knew then, at age 14, I wasn’t ready for it yet.
How ironic, when the whole movie is about not being ready and growing up too fast anyway.
Having seen the movie now, almost 20 years too late, I’m not quite sure Fast Times is a great movie, but I can see why it’s earned its place in the teen coming-of-age canon. As a film, it suffers the most from Cameron Crowe’s Cameron Crowe-ness, in that I simply do not believe anything he writes here is even remotely based on truth. But his triteness is blessedly tempered by the empathetic eye of director Amy Heckerling. Still, I can’t argue that all of the movie’s strength’s come from Heckerling. It’s Heckerling and Crowe’s work together that makes Fast Times worth remembering.
A structure of breezy vignettes and glimpses into both the humanity and absurdity of teenagerhood creates questions about the lives of Fast Times’s characters and then never answers them. This has the impressive effect of making everyone instantly relatable while still holding them at a remove. At various points in the movie, this is as frustrating as it is entertaining, but then, isn’t that a teenager in a nutshell? You never get the full picture of them; they only give you what they want you to see. In no character does the combined talents of writer and director better demonstrate this delicate balance than they do in Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), the girl everyone remembers from this movie but for all the wrong reasons.
Most teenage girls aren’t really liars. They’re storytellers. They create stories to reshape reality around them. Some of those stories become weapons, but some become armor. Linda’s fiancé, Doug — who is older than her, lives in Chicago, works for an airline, orgasms at the same time as her and is 100% fictional — is armor. Linda’s relationship with Doug as she brags about it to Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a year-long saga designed to keep her safe from all the disappointment her younger friend endures and the preposterous fantasy Stacy’s older brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), envisions in his unlocked bathroom. Has Linda actually done any of the things she teaches Stacy? Did she just learn them from magazines? There’s no way to know. And that’s exactly what Linda wants.
It only becomes obvious at the end of the movie, when Linda tearfully tells Stacy that Doug broke up with her, that the lie has come to an end — not because she was found out (though surely Stacy must suspect, what with Linda’s little slip-ups) but because it’s no longer interesting. Maybe Linda is ready for a summer with a real boy, not a make-believe man. Maybe she isn’t. Linda may talk a loud game, but Heckerling and Crowe both demonstrate that Linda is fully capable of deciding when and how she’ll grow up. Her childish boyfriend game is wiser than she knows.
Maybe the thing that my grandmother loved so much about Fast Times At Ridgemont High — the thing that so many people love about it — is that it never judges its teenagers for their mistakes. Not Stacy, for lying about her age and allowing herself to be statutorily raped. Not Damone, for impregnating his best friend’s crush and then abandoning her to pay for the abortion herself. As a 30-year-old mom, my immediate reaction watching these events unfold was a lot of internal screaming. But as someone who used to be a teenager, I can see the brilliance in depicting these common experiences as frankly as possible, without a lecture attached to them. Teenagers are always going to make mistakes in their desire to be older than they actually are. The kindest thing you can do for them, then, is just be there for them in the aftermath, like Brad is for Stacy after her abortion. It’s the kindness of Heckerling and Crowe in this movie that truly sets it apart from its counterparts, followers and imitators. Kindness, and the bittersweet knowledge that comes with growing up — and getting to the end of the movie.
Fast times don’t last forever. Eventually, they all slow down.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is now available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD.